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Business of the House

Volume 490: debated on Thursday 26 March 2009

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 30 March—A general debate on Africa.

Tuesday 31 March—A general debate on the economy.

Wednesday 1 April—Second Reading of the Geneva Conventions and United Nations Personnel (Protocols) Bill [Lords], followed by a motion relating to the Non-domestic Rating (Collection and Enforcement) (Local Lists) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2009.

Thursday 2 April—Motion on the Easter recess Adjournment.

The provisional business for the week commencing 20 April will include:

Monday 20 April—A general debate on defence procurement.

Tuesday 21 April—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Industry and Exports (Financial Support) Bill, followed by:

The Chairman of Ways and Means will name opposed private business for consideration.

Wednesday 22 April— My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

Thursday 23 April—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by continuation of the Budget debate.

Friday 24 April—Private Members’ Bills.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. I thank her also for her thorough answer to my question last week about NHS trusts replying to Members’ letters. It is encouraging that we can sometimes work together constructively on issues that affect all hon. Members and, more importantly, our constituents.

May I, however, protest that convention has been discarded by the Government’s somewhat offensive decision to stick a topical debate in ahead of the second day of the Budget debate, which is traditionally opened by the shadow Chancellor? Will the right hon. and learned Lady undertake to reverse that unacceptable decision?

The draft National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Housing) Order 2009, which would affect the right to buy in Wales, was laid before the House on 3 February and was down for scrutiny on Monday 23 March. That scrutiny did not take place. I would like to ask the Leader of the House why not and when the order will come to Committee. Even better, will she allow it to be taken on the Floor of the House?

Yesterday, the Government promised that there would be an announcement on the inquiry into the Iraq war on 31 July, a full 10 days after the start of the summer recess. Quite simply, that is not acceptable. Will the right hon. and learned Lady undertake to give us a statement on the remit and intent of that inquiry before we rise for the summer?

Once again, I stand here to request an urgent debate on Equitable Life. On Monday, the parliamentary ombudsman launched an excoriating attack on the Government’s contemptuous treatment of her recommendations, and today in Treasury questions, the Economic Secretary compounded that by treating policyholders and this House with utter contempt. Because the Government’s response has been, as the ombudsman put it, a betrayal of justice, and they have ignored her recommendations, she has decided for the first time ever to invoke powers to produce a follow-up report. When will we have such a debate, and when will the people affected be compensated?

Citizens advice bureaux are performing an invaluable service for the millions of people who are suffering grave financial difficulties in the recession, and we should do everything we can to support them. Instead, the Government’s new network of community legal advice centres is squeezing out CABs and forcing them to make damaging cuts at exactly the wrong time. May we have an urgent debate on the Government’s decision to tender legal services in that way, so that the House can put a stop to the callous destruction of CABs?

May we have a debate on the work ethic of Members of Parliament? Last week, we heard complaints from the Labour Chief Whip that at least 5 per cent. of his own MPs were completely idle. [Hon. Members: “Where are they?”] Well, exactly. Today, the Government have lost three votes in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill Committee, because Labour MPs, including a Minister, did not even bother to turn up. In the interests of value for money, which the public expect, may I invite the Leader of the House—I hear calls for this from behind me—to list the 5 per cent. by name?

When it comes to performance, perhaps the right hon. and learned Lady will agree to be more forthcoming than she was at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. She refused to answer three questions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) on what the Government thought about the Governor of the Bank of England’s warning about a second fiscal stimulus. It has now become apparent that the Government’s entire economic argument has collapsed, to the extent that The Independent has today called the Prime Minister, “A haunted Prime Minister, marooned on his fantasy island”. In a further fantasy, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has told the New Statesman that he wants to be Chancellor and Labour leader.

May we at least hope that the Prime Minister and Lord Mandelson can make the most of their visit to Brazil? [Interruption.] It is not where the nuts come from that matters: it is the nuts we send there who worry me. It could, after all, be the right hon. and learned Lady’s “Evita” moment.

There is one little ray of sunshine. At last, one Minister has begun to take our advice and started making an apology. We are told that the right hon. and learned Lady got into a bit of a mess about whether the actor who plays Tony Blair, or Tony Blair himself, is the better looking. We have heard the words of her apology, “Tony, you are still the fairest of them all.” One can but imagine his reply, “You know, I was a marvellous Prime Minister, but I got out in the nick of time.”

The shadow Leader of the House has complained that we have scheduled a topical debate for Thursday 23 April, when otherwise there would be continuation of the Budget debate. I am happy to accept his protests. That business was only provisional, so I will amend the business and make sure that there is a full day’s debate on the Budget opened by the Opposition, who choose the topic.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the draft National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Housing) Order 2009. We will make sure that it is properly scrutinised. The process is new, and we need to get it right.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Iraq inquiry. There was a debate about that, and I have nothing further to add in business questions. Nor do I have anything further to add to what Treasury Ministers said about Equitable Life.

I will raise with the Justice Secretary the hon. Gentleman’s questions about citizens advice bureaux. The Government have strongly supported their work, which is even more important to help people who find themselves in difficulties because of the downturn.

The hon. Gentleman said that our economic argument had collapsed. Well, that is not the way everyone sees it. The former Tory leader of Thurrock council, Councillor Terry Hipsey, expressed a rather different view when he said:

“I’ve spent the last two-and-a-half years trying to keep this dysfunctional Tory group of Councillors together. Recently, after having some time to reflect, it has become clear to me that this group—and the Conservative Party more widely—are incapable of making the changes necessary to take Thurrock forward.

I’ve been increasingly impressed with the group of Labour councillors”.

He went on to say that because of the excellent work of the local Labour Members of Parliament, my hon. Friends the Members for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) and for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), and because of the work of the Prime Minister, he had decided to join the Labour party. We welcome him.

The hon. Gentleman raised the subject of the work ethic. I think that his point about value for money was very important. It is the case that 60 per cent. of Conservative Members have second jobs. That is why I think that the public will greatly welcome the fact that the Prime Minister—

Sixty per cent. of Conservative Members have second jobs, and I do not think that that is value for public money.

The hon. Gentleman raised questions about what he described as manoeuvring. He mentioned a number of Cabinet Ministers, but I think that the manoeuvring on which he ought to be focusing is that of the shadow shadow Chancellor against the Leader of the Opposition. I think that it is a case of Hush Puppies on the Leader of the Opposition’s lawn.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned my unfortunate gaffe in relation to Michael Sheen. Let me say that I think that he is an excellent actor, who is clearly capable of covering a diverse range of roles. He brilliantly played a socialist, Brian Clough. He also played the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. He is a great credit to his native country, Wales.

One of the many tasks that take up the time of Members of Parliament is handling constituents’ worries about the way in which their benefits and tax credits are processed, and generally dealing with Government bureaucracy. May I urge the Leader of the House to call a debate on the Department for Work and Pensions report, published today, on how jobcentres and other organisations deal with customer complaints?

I think that the Public Accounts Committee report—I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to it—reflects a big improvement in jobcentres and the way in which those claiming benefits are dealt with. Obviously the Government will reflect on the report, but it should also be pointed out that, against a background of increased work for jobcentre staff, they are providing a much better service. I pay tribute to them for that.

I previously welcomed the two days allotted to the Report stage of the Coroners and Justice Bill, but last week’s timetabling was a disgrace. None of the clauses relating to the reform of the coronial system were reached; nor, indeed, were the clauses relating to the law of homicide. The Government literally got away with murder.

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to another problem? It relates to the Committee considering the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan). Setting aside the Government’s difficulty that only six of their 12 MPs on the Committee bothered to turn up—I would love to have heard the conversation between the Deputy Chief Whip, the hapless hon. Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler) and the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon)—126 clauses and 20 new clauses remain to be considered by a Committee that has only three sittings left. Some clauses may not be considered either in Committee or on Report.

I have a revolutionary suggestion for the Leader of the House. We should do something that is normal in another place and that used to be normal in this place: we should not have a restrictive timetable, and we should let this House scrutinise the Bill properly and fully. If there are difficulties later, the Government can react to them, and if there is a need to shorten speeches, no doubt you can intervene, Mr. Speaker, but the House should have its say on that important Bill, which would be welcomed by all.

Most Members are aware of the difficulties caused by endemic AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in much of the developing world. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has been set up to deal with those issues. May we have a debate on the workings of the fund? The UK has a relatively good story to tell—quite properly, we have taken the lead—but there is still a shortfall between the fair share of the British contribution and what is actually being received by the fund, which is desperately short of cash. May we in this House consider how we can better help people suffering from those awful diseases in other parts of the world?

May we have a debate on the misuse of powers granted by this House to combat terrorism and serious crime? We heard a chilling report today about the number of local authorities that use surveillance powers for trivial purposes, and we hear repeated reports about the police using the Terrorism Act 2000 for inappropriate purposes, whether it is questioning 2,000 people at train stations—train-spotters are apparently a threat to the state—photographers taking pictures of London street scenes, anglers who make the mistake of fishing at night, or the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) attending the House of Commons. Those cases involve misuse of those powers. May we have a debate?

Lastly, I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Lady has a Facebook account, and I do not know whether she has been poked recently—Facebook users know what that means—or whether she has been asked to intervene. My Facebook friends are very upset at Home Office plans to snoop on sites such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace. May we have a debate on that disproportionate and unnecessary extension of state powers, which leads us, despite it being 2009, inexorably to “1984”?

On the Coroners and Justice Bill, if we had not had a programme motion, we might have ended up with two days’ discussion of inquests in camera. Twenty-five Members contributed to the first debate, which is why time was squeezed for the important discussions on murder. Because so many Members wanted to contribute to the first debate, exceptionally we allowed two days. If we had not had a programme motion, we would have ended up with two days’ debate on the first question. The programme motion ensured that on the second day we discussed incitement to homophobic hatred and a Government amendment tabled in response to complaints from the Opposition and others about our data-sharing measures. We tried to be as helpful as possible. Even though we provided two days for debate, it was not possible to discuss all the issues when so many Members wanted to contribute on the first matter of inquests in camera.

We will make sure that the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill is properly scrutinised.

On local councils and surveillance, local communities ask local councils to use CCTV to catch fly-tippers and stop illegal trading. Local communities ask for CCTV in shopping centres and their local areas, which has nothing to do with the misuse of anti-terrorism powers. Having said that, the Minister for Local Government has written to local councils reminding them that they should use their surveillance powers appropriately.

The hon. Gentleman asked about tackling disease in developing countries. He understands that we have increased the budget for developing countries to help to tackle disease. This Government played a leading role in the introduction of millennium development goals to deal with avoidable diseases, and we have worked to move up the international agenda tackling the problems faced by developing countries. Even in the midst of our preoccupation with the effect of the global downturn on this country, the Prime Minister has been sure to emphasise, through the work leading up to the G20, that we must act together internationally to protect developing countries from the downturn as well.

My right hon. and learned Friend will recall her comments about the problems facing charities such as Naomi House children’s hospice, which serves my constituency and those of many other hon. Members, following the collapse of the Icelandic banks. Will she prevail on her colleagues in the Treasury to find a way to include charities such as Naomi House in the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, as it was never the intention to exclude all charities from the scheme, particularly those that care for terminally ill children?

I reinforce the points that I have made about Naomi House providing an important service for families with children who need hospice care, and I know that my hon. Friend values that work. Naomi House was particularly unfortunate, because some 60 per cent. of its reserves were in one Icelandic bank. We want to ensure that the administrators ultimately cover all the deposits and that, ultimately, Naomi House gets its money back. However, that is not the point; the point is that Naomi House should be able to carry on doing its good work and extend it as planned. Last week, I spoke to the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), about the matter, and meetings are taking place between Naomi House and the local primary care trusts and strategic health authority. There is an absolute determination to support Naomi House’s work in the future, as well as to make sure that it and other charities get back all the money held in Icelandic banks.

May we have an early debate and a vote on Equitable Life? At Treasury questions, the Executive declared war on Parliament, when a Minister spoke in disobliging terms about an Officer of the House and the unanimous report of a Select Committee. Before the Government spend too much time on the Chadwick review, does it not make sense to ensure that that review has the support of the House of Commons?

I have nothing to add to what the Treasury Minister said, except to say that the matter can be raised in the pre-recess Adjournment debate. If the Opposition want a Minister specifically to respond to the point, they can raise the matter in an Opposition day debate.

The importance of hospice care has already been mentioned this afternoon. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend is aware of how much hospice care depends on voluntary donations by the public and corporate bodies. On Saturday, I will open the spring fair for the George Thomas hospice in my constituency. In these difficult times caused by the global economic downturn, donations from the public and corporate donors decline. When can we have a debate on that important subject and on ensuring that hospices can continue their work?

I hope that the spring fair for the George Thomas hospice goes well, and I know that my hon. Friend is a strong supporter of it. Perhaps we should have a topical debate on the effect on charities of the fall-off in charitable giving, particularly by corporate bodies, and discuss what our strategic response should be. I believe that all Members think that the work of the charitable and voluntary sector is very important indeed, and a debate might provide us with an opportunity to decide whether we are doing enough to protect it.

Now that the right hon. and learned Lady is taking an interest in the work ethic in this House, will she turn her attention to the work ethic of her fellow Ministers? In October, I wrote to the Economic Secretary to the Treasury on behalf of a constituent about bonuses paid by banks. As is my practice, I followed up with chaser letters, but to no avail, so we resorted to the telephone. On 3 March, my office phoned the private office of Lord Myners chasing a reply to my letter, only to be told that 900 letters were waiting to be signed by Lord Myners. When still no reply came, we phoned again on 24 October, and were told that approximately 950 letters were now waiting to be signed by Lord Myners. We have been invited to telephone his office yet again this afternoon. I wish the right hon. and learned Lady would do something about this.

I will follow that up. It is important that hon. Members are able to get letters from Ministers promptly.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on the financial ineptitudes of shire county councils such as Kent, which invested £50 million of taxpayers’ money in the failing Icelandic banks? Does she agree with the Audit Commission’s findings published today, which label Kent county council’s actions as neglect?

It is very worrying that the Audit Commission has said that Kent county council did not properly check where the reserves were being put on behalf of ratepayers. I am sure that the Minister for Local Government will follow up this important point.

May we have a debate on the construction industry? The Government have said that the industry is important to provide economic stimulus; the Conservatives have said that no additional funds will be made available for that industry to provide that stimulus; the industry itself believes it can provide that economic stimulus. May we have a debate, so we can tell the industry what it can provide and when it can provide it, both as a short-term measure and a long-term strategy?

Such issues will be reflected in the economic debate next week, and in the debate following the Budget statement.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that women working at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency earn £5,000 per year less than men with very similar responsibilities who work at the Driving Standards Agency? Both agencies are part of the Department for Transport and both have Crown employees. May we have a debate on this matter?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. There will be plenty of opportunity to debate this when we introduce the equality Bill. The reality is that women are not less committed to their jobs, or less qualified, less hard working, or less valuable in the workplace, but they are paid less. We need a strong equality Bill to make sure we strip away the secrecy that allows discrimination against women at work to flourish.

Is the Leader of the House aware that there is growing anger in East Yorkshire and across Humberside, and, indeed, elsewhere, over the behaviour of some private wheel-clamping firms? Does she know that although they have to be licensed, many of them still use threatening behaviour to extract exorbitant fines from unsuspecting motorists? If we cannot have a debate next week, will she ask the Home Secretary to expedite her review, so that we can soon have in place new rules to stop this licensed thuggery?

This issue was raised with me in the House, and I discussed it with the Home Secretary. I think she fully agrees with the points the right hon. Gentleman makes on behalf of his constituents and those in his region, and when the review finally reaches its conclusion I am sure he will not be disappointed with its findings.

I recall that at last week’s business questions three hon. Members raised the financial problems within the Learning and Skills Council. Since last Thursday, the chief executive has resigned and the implications of the financial misjudgments are now extending to other colleges that had in the pipeline not major capital projects but minor capital projects for which they could reasonably expect to receive a smaller contribution from the LSC. Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate, because it would enable us not only to remind the country that in the last year of the previous Conservative Government there was no capital budget for further education and that in the last three years of the previous Conservative Government a 7 per cent. annual cut in FE revenue spend was required, but to see exactly how the current Government can resolve this problem?

It is right to point out that under the Conservative Government the capital budget for learning and skills in further education was not mismanaged because there was no such budget. I think there has been mismanagement and, as my hon. Friend says, the chief executive of the LSC has resigned. At the request of the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Sir Andrew Foster is conducting a review. I think it is likely that there will be an oral statement when the review is concluded, and Members will have a chance to hear from the Minister and raise points.

Members on both sides of the House have raised with the Leader of the House their concern about the iniquity of the surface water charges being levied by water authorities and water companies. In my own area, United Utilities has declared a temporary moratorium for village halls, Scout organisations, churches and sporting clubs, but will she find time for a topical debate, because this House has never decided that such charges should be levied, and in my view they are unfair and iniquitous and place burdens on organisations that clearly do not have the money to pay?

This is an important issue, particularly for village halls, Scout groups and churches. It might be worth while for the hon. Gentleman to raise it with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers at oral questions next week.

May I return to the debacle over the LSC’s total mismanagement of the Building Colleges for the Future programme? It was discussed in a Westminster Hall debate yesterday that was so over-subscribed that many Members were not called to speak. That was not surprising given that 144 new college build schemes have now been put on hold, including the College of West Anglia scheme in the town of March in my constituency, which was linked to 270 new homes under the regional spatial strategy for Cambridgeshire, a new country park, a £500,000 business centre and significant transport improvements, not to mention a massive uplift in education provision for an area with performance indicators well below the national average. May we have a debate as a matter of urgency to explore the reasons behind this massive Labour Government cut in education spending, and to find a way forward for those colleges, which are now in truly parlous situations?

The hon. Gentleman ought to reflect on the fact that this is mismanagement; it is not a cut, as we have increased the LSC’s budget. We make no bones about the fact that there has been mismanagement by the LSC, but 261 college projects are going ahead, although in saying that I do not seek to minimise the problems for the 144 that are not. I know this is of concern to the House, because plans have been made and money has been spent in areas that were expecting the colleges to go ahead. I know the House will want to discuss this further. We will probably start with an oral statement, and then we will have to reflect on whether there needs to be a further opportunity for debate.

I know that the Leader of the House has already been asked to arrange a debate on Equitable Life, but will she use her good offices to see whether we can speed up payouts to Equitable Life policyholders? I ask that because there is not a constituency in this country that has not been affected.

I know that this matter was addressed by Treasury Ministers this morning, and I am sure that they, like my hon. Friend and I, and, indeed, all hon. Members, want the ex gratia payment scheme to come into effect as soon as possible. It should be a matter of priority that those who are in most difficulty receive payments first.

May we have an urgent debate on the tax treatment by HMRC of sporting stars’ testimonials? The committee representing one of my constituents has been trying to get an answer out of HMRC about the tax treatment of a sporting star’s testimonial. It is clear that HMRC deals with cricketers and rugby players differently, and that there is a massive amount of delay, confusion and disarray in HMRC on this matter. All that the committee that looks after the affairs of my constituent is getting from HMRC is confusion, delay and obfuscation. If we cannot have an urgent debate, will the Leader of the House urge Treasury Ministers to see me and members of the committee?

I do not know whether the hon. and learned Gentleman tried to put a question to Treasury Ministers, but if he did not manage to catch the Speaker’s eye earlier it would probably be a good idea for him to follow this up with a written question. In any case, I shall bring the fact that he has raised this matter to the attention of Treasury Ministers.

When the Leader of the House left Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, she missed three points of order made by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), and the hon. Members for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), which can be found at column 308 of Hansard. Each of them contradicted the statement she made yesterday that this Government were not cutting spending, as that is indeed their plan for Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff. May we have an urgent debate in Government time on the impact of Government cuts to the nations and the Province, and will she lead it so that she can, at least and at last, bring herself up to speed with Government policy?

I am up to speed with Government policy, and I know, as the hon. Gentleman does, that the Barnett formula applies to Scotland. I can also tell him emphatically that of course we are not cutting spending in Scotland and Wales at the very time when public spending is more important, as the country faces this global economic crisis—it is absolutely not the case that we are cutting spending now, in a recession. He is referring to the determination to ensure that across England, Scotland and Wales we get better value for public money spent. In Wales and England, a commitment has been made to secure 3 per cent. more efficiency in how public money is spent, but the Scottish Executive want to sign up to only 2 per cent.—that is 1 per cent. less than in England and Wales. They should be prepared to show as much determination to ensure that public money is well spent as their counterparts in England and Wales, and they should not peddle the myths that we are cutting money to Scotland and that I do not know what I am talking about, as both of those are wrong.

May we have a debate on regional development agencies? The south-west’s RDA is putting more money into Swindon, Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth than it is into the rural areas. Somerset, which is a tourist destination, as the Leader of the House is well aware, is finding it harder—or impossible—to get decent sums out of the RDA, as is Bridgwater, which is the only industrial town in the south-west. Please could we look carefully at what is happening, because if this continues in this recession, it will be harder and harder for investment to come into our areas because of the RDA’s attitude?

The work of the RDAs is even more important as the country faces this economic downturn. Hon. Members surely wish to be able to hold RDAs to account for the balance of spending within a region, and the best way of doing that is by being on the relevant Regional Committee. Following the decision of the House, we are trying out Regional Committees only for the lifetime of this Parliament, so Conservative Members should at least try them. If, afterwards, they think that the Committees are a waste of time, they can say, “I told you so”, but they will not even try them. If they have these concerns, they should get on the Regional Committees and see whether they can help.

I think that when the Chief Whip said that he thought 5 per cent. of Labour MPs were not pulling their weight he was confused; what we have seen today is that about 5 per cent. of Labour MPs are pulling their weight—and that does include the Leader of the House. I hope she can use her weight to get a debate on the lack of educational psychologists in this country, particularly in Lancashire. One of my constituents wrote to me about the cancellation of an appointment with an educational psychologist. When I wrote to the county council, it said it was having great difficulty recruiting any educational psychologists. There is clearly a lack of them throughout the country, so can we have a debate on the issue?

I shall raise that point with my ministerial colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families. I take it that my colleagues are happy to leave me to get on with putting to the House the business of the House while they work hard in their constituencies.

The Leader of House will have noted that Lord Myners responded in writing to the Treasury Committee admitting that he had—no doubt, mistakenly—given false evidence to it the week before and did understand and know all the details of Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension. In the light of that, should we not have a statement from the Chancellor, and should not Lord Myners be considering his position?

No, he should not. I did not watch all of Treasury questions, so I do not know whether this matter was raised. The focus of Ministers, particularly Lord Myners, in relation to Royal Bank of Scotland was on the fact that one of the biggest banks in the world was about to go off the edge of a cliff. His and our determination was to ensure that that did not happen, as it would have had catastrophic effects on all the staff in the organisation and on the whole banking system—in particular, on depositors. That was the main focus of his work, and it was the correct one. We are looking to see whether the pension arrangements really do hold water legally.

I wish to add to the calls for a debate on further education, as the crisis in funding is hitting my constituency hard. The Government’s response in yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate was shambolic, and the Leader of the House needs to intervene urgently so that we can get either the oral statement that she has talked about or a debate, including a response from the Secretary of State, so that colleges in my constituency can get the reassurance they need for the future.

I will undertake to listen with genuine concern to the points raised by Conservative Members on further education colleges in their constituencies if they will reverse their plan to impose £600 million of cuts. I am concerned about FE colleges, be they in my constituency or in the hon. Lady’s, but the fact is that her party’s plans are to cut £600 million off—

Order. Mr. Speaker has already given advice to the Government Front-Bench team this morning about referring to Opposition policies, so to be consistent I should restrain the right hon. and learned Lady at that particular point. While I am on my feet, may I also say that I want to try to call all Members, but it would be very helpful if the questions were brief and the answers equally concise?

Last week, the Leader of the House said that she took seriously the points I made about the need for this House to scrutinise legislation. May I suggest to her constructively—we recognise that two days were given on the Coroners and Justice Bill and more time was given in Committee—that the solution must be that discussions be held about whether programme motions can be negotiated and agreed and we, in turn, can agree to restrictions on the length of speeches on Report, if necessary? That would mean that everything we need to have debated could be debated, and everybody would win. Will she engage constructively in those discussions?

The Government Whips do engage in discussions with their opposite numbers, and we will always try to get as much scrutiny as possible. We did see whether changes could be made that would meet with approval from all parts of the House, but some Members wanted to spend more time discussing the inquests in camera issue whereas others wanted to spend more time discussing murder and assisted suicide, and it was not possible to reach an accommodation with which everybody agreed.

I welcome the fact that we are having an early debate on the economy, but I regret the fact that the Prime Minister will not speak for the Government. May I suggest that we rearrange the debate so that he can? Given the evidence of the chairman of the Financial Services Authority and the Governor of the Bank of England, it is plain that the Prime Minister has a huge personal responsibility for the economic plight of this country. Given that, to organise a debate without the presence of the Prime Minister is rather like organising a criminal case without the principal defendant being in the dock.

When making statements following international meetings, the Prime Minister deals extensively with economic issues, and he answers questions in the House every Wednesday.

Given that we have 80,000 prisoners in this country, that two thirds of them reoffend within two years of release, and that the whole system, including reoffending, costs £18,000 million a year, is it not time that we debated the Centre for Social Justice report “Locked Up Potential”, which calls for the scrapping of the three planned Titan prisons, for community prisons in their stead, and for an increased focus on education, training and rehabilitation?

That point was raised yesterday in Prime Minister’s questions, and I shall raise it with the Justice Secretary.

Last week, I asked the Leader of the House whether we could have a debate on the future of the Hemel Hempstead hospital. She said that I should have given her notice. I have raised the issue 25 times in business questions, and I would have thought that was enough notice. Since last week, the Highways Agency has put up new signs at junction 8 of the M1, displaying “Hospital A&E”. It is closed: will the Secretary of State for Transport come and explain why he is leading people astray?

I think that it is the Secretary of State for Health that the hon. Gentleman is after. Did the hon. Gentleman ask a question about this at Health questions on Tuesday? It is a matter for Health questions rather than business questions.

On Monday, the Prime Minister was slightly confused. When trying to dodge the Leader of the Opposition’s question about why the Prime Minister was not reporting to Parliament on the G20 summit, he said that the date of the summit had been arranged months after the Easter recess. In fact, the Easter recess was decided on 11 March this year, but the G20 was announced on 26 November last year. Can we get the Prime Minister to come this Thursday to report on the G20 summit?

The Prime Minister takes his responsibilities to account to the House very seriously. I do not know the exact numbers, but I think that he has made more statements to the House than most other Prime Ministers—I will look up the figures. No doubt the Prime Minister will want to account to the House in respect of the G20 summit.

A number of local authorities have been found by the Audit Commission to be financially negligent in their investments with Icelandic banks, including the London borough of Havering, which is noted for its financial probity. May we have a debate on the exact nature of the warnings that were given, where the information came from and how it was communicated, because this will be a matter of great concern for local taxpayers?

It will be a particular concern to the seven authorities that were mentioned, and perhaps that is an issue on which hon. Members could apply for a debate on the Adjournment.

Our suspicion that the disgraceful curtailment of debate on the Report stage of the Coroners and Justice Bill on Monday had more to do with chicanery over the issues of assisted suicide and murder than anything else was confirmed by the fact that the following day, at 11.20 am, we received a wodge of letters from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), the Minister on the Bill, answering a variety of questions asked in Committee—on which I served—about the coronial system. Ministers replied after any opportunity to debate the matter in the House. Does the Leader of the House agree that that is an appalling waste of ministerial time, and what can she do to ensure that it does not happen in future?

I have looked, in some detail, into how we could have ordered things differently—[Hon. Members: “More time!”] Well, we had two days on Report, which was exceptional. I will look at the issue again to see whether any lessons can be learnt, but I ask hon. Members to recognise that there was no chicanery. We have no interest in anything other than proper scrutiny of the Bill. I cannot see how we could have tried harder to reach agreement, but I will look at that again.

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), is the Leader of the House aware that the College of West Anglia was planning not only a new campus in March, but a £100 million-plus new campus in King’s Lynn on a brownfield site, on which depended new houses, business units and a new city academy? What does she say to those colleges that have spent large sums preparing such plans? May we have a debate and a confirmation that if those plans are cancelled, the colleges will get their money back?

We await Sir Andrew Foster’s report. The Secretary of State will report to the House and there will then be announcements and an opportunity to discuss how we go forward beyond what is clearly bad mismanagement.

The Leader of the House will know that many Members of Parliament have had many letters from constituents about Equitable Life. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) mentioned the comments by the Economic Secretary. In my right hon. Friend’s polite way, he described them as disobliging remarks about an Officer of the House. Does the Leader of the House agree with the Economic Secretary? If she does, does she not think that that is in conflict with her position as Leader of the House and guardian of the rights of Members?

I did not hear what the Economic Secretary said, but I was present when the Chief Secretary made her statement. She acknowledged that there had been errors in management of Equitable Life that went back to the 1980s; that there had been regulatory failures for which apologies were owed and had been given; and that although there was no legal obligation to pay compensation the Government were determined, exceptionally, to make payments in recompense and a system for doing so was being established.

May we have a debate on the NHS’s recruitment priorities? I recently attended No.10 Downing street with an excellent organisation called to complain about the lack of midwives, and many of my constituents still find it very difficult to find an NHS dentist, but last year the NHS recruited an extra 9.4 per cent. of managers. Surely the resources of the NHS should be directed at front-line care, rather than bureaucrats filling in forms to meet Government targets?

The Political Parties and Elections Bill is now before the upper House. The Leader of the House may be aware that two Liberal Democrat peers have tabled an amendment to strike out the new clause about confidentiality of candidates’ home addresses, which was included in the Bill after a free vote for Conservative and Labour Members, but a whipped vote against for Liberal Democrats. What would the Government’s attitude be in the strange event of the upper House deciding to overrule a free vote in the lower House about whether our home addresses have to be revealed when we stand for election—something that Members of the upper House, fortunately for them, do not have to do?

I voted for the hon. Gentleman’s amendment on a free vote. I assume that if the issue comes back to this House, it will be subject to a free vote again, and I would vote for it again. Our constituents are entitled to know whether candidates live in the constituency, but they should not necessarily know the flat number or road, so the amendment was a sensible one.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for saying that the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill will receive proper scrutiny. I would be grateful if she explained how that will happen.

To return to the issue of Equitable Life, there was an extraordinary statement by the Economic Secretary earlier. The Select Committee has described the Government position as “morally unacceptable”. Surely it is cause enough for a debate in this House when the ombudsman and the Select Committee are in direct opposition to the Executive. The Leader of the House has so far ducked the question. May we have a debate—

Order. As the hon. Gentleman was the last to be called, I indulged him with two questions, but he is now pushing it.